The Interview: Kristi Yamaguchi

by Janet Reilly

As Olympic fever sweeps the nation, all eyes will be on Pyeongchang, South Korea, as athletes from around the world vie for the 102 medals up for grabs. For most of the athletes, just being at the games is a dream come true. And for the elite of the elite, they will return to their home countries with a medal in hand.

Twenty-six years ago this month, Kristi Yamaguchi skated her way to Olympic gold and into the hearts of the American public. Raised in Fremont, Yamaguchi first stepped on to the ice at six years old. Little did she know that one day she’d be among the world’s greatest figure skaters, winning two world championships, a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France and skating professionally afterward.

On a recent gray and misty January afternoon, Yamaguchi and I met for lunch at the Lafayette Park Hotel & Spa in the East Bay where we dined on crab and iceberg wedge salads (delicious!) before settling in for a chat by the fire in a private room off the hotel lobby.

To say Yamaguchi is humble about her accomplishments as a pro athlete, businesswoman and author (she’s published three children’s books)—not to mention a television commentator, founder of the Always Dream Foundation for children, wife (she’s married to former pro hockey player, Bret Hedican), mother of two daughters aged 12 and 14, and, oh yes, winner of the highly coveted Mirrorball Trophy from Dancing with the Stars—is an understatement.

I couldn’t resist asking the Olympian about that victory, as well for her thoughts on the Games, skating alongside Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding and her efforts to improve childhood literacy.

Meet Kristi Yamaguchi…

There’s a lot of excitement about the upcoming Olympics and the figure skating is always highly anticipated. Tell me a little about this year’s women’s team?

Well, Bradie Tennell is our brand new U.S. National Champion and she kind of sprang out of nowhere. Mirai Nagasu is attending her second Olympics. And then there’s Karen Chen, who is fairly new. She was the U.S.Champion last year.

And Karen’s from your hometown of Fremont.

Yes, a hometown girl. I’m proud of her and excited for her. I’ve mentored her a little bit so it’s been fun to see her grow up in the last five years. I think all three girls have a legitimate chance to make the podium if they skate the way they can. You never know what’s going to happen. As for the men, we have a legitimate chance at a medal and possibly even a gold from Nathan Chen.

Will you be there?

No, not this year. I’ll be in Stamford, Connecticut. I will be working with and doing some digital content with them.

I’m sure you have some pretty vivid memories of your 1992 Olympic experience. What was going through your head as you stepped on to the ice, knowing that gold was within reach?

It was terrifying! Right before the first short program, it was almost unbearable. And I remember thinking, “I don’t want to go out there. I know I’m ready, but this is just way too much.” And, then I received a letter from my choreographer that said, “This is your time. This is your moment. Go out and go for it.” And, for some reason, it focused me. It really calmed me down.

I can’t imagine that kind of pressure. And of course you performed beautifully.

I just let the music carry me. I skated a clean, short program, which is always the goal. That put me in first place after the short because Tonya [Harding] went for the triple axel and missed. That was a costly mistake and Midori [Ito] missed in her short program so I was comfortably in the lead. But, again, it was just terrifying even though I knew I could compete well in the long program. I was the first of the six skaters to compete, so I had to wait for five more skaters and watch them compete to see how I was going to measure up.

And at what moment did you realize you did measure up and had won the gold?

Well, It’s very funny. I was backstage with my coach, and with Nancy Kerrigan and her two coaches waiting for the last skater to finish. The official call usually came from TV because they posted the scores and that’s when everyone finds out.

So, I could hear through the headset of one of the cameramen and I asked him, “Do you know the official results?” So he calls in to the producer and says, “Hey Dusty, what’s the official result?” And the cameraman held the earpiece out and we heard the producer say, “Yamaguchi! Ito! Kerrigan! But, don’t tell them!” Meanwhile, there’s just like crying and screaming from both camps.

That’s a great story! Is there an Olympic moment for you that stands out—one that you play over and over again in your head?

Certain snippets of the skating—the podium, medal ceremony, and, then the Opening Ceremonies. I think that’s the moment when you really feel like an Olympian—when you’re not just a figure skater, but you’re representing your country. You’re among the best athletes. It was an honor to meet and to march with them and to be a collective team. I think that was probably the most special moment.

I understand you met a very special fellow Olympian during those Opening Ceremonies.

Yes. I met Bret.

How did you meet?

Before you march in, you line up by country and you’re waiting for two, three hours. I don’t know, it seemed like forever. Nancy and I were like, “Let’s go meet some athletes.” She knew some of the hockey players on the U.S. team because they were from Boston. So we met the team and she introduced me to some of the players and we took pictures. That was about it. Fast-forward a few years later, I was re-introduced to Bret at an event and he said, “I was on the U.S. hockey team and we met at the Opening Ceremonies.” I went back and looked at those pictures and he was in a couple photos. We ended up keeping in touch when he came to the Bay Area [he was playing for Vancouver at the time]. That connection of the Olympics is what sparked our friendship.

There’s a lot about Tonya Harding in the news these days with the movie I, Tonya. What was your relationship like with Tonya and Nancy, who were competitors and teammates?

It was fairly normal. Nancy and I experienced our first national competition together. I was 14, I think. She was 15. So we had come up the ranks competing against each other, but it was always friendly competition and she became one of my closest friends and competitors. And Tonya had kind of been a level ahead of us so I wasn’t as close to Tonya. The competition among all of us was always friendly, and I think, respectful. But I was just always closer to Nancy. Tonya separated herself a little bit from the rest of the group.

You started skating at six years old. Were you good right away?

No, I wasn’t good right away. I was never as naturally gifted as some of the other people at the rink. I remember my mom telling me, “Some of us just need to work a little harder than others.” That was good advice because I was like, “OK, I’m gonna work harder.” In my first competition, I came in eleventh out of twelve. I said to my mom, “How come they got a medal and I didn’t?” And she said, “Well, you have to be in the top three to get a medal.” So I was like, “Next time I’m gonna get a medal!”

You obviously loved skating as a child, but as the stakes became higher—training for the Olympics, turning pro, going to the world championships—were you able to sustain the love of the sport?

Through the early years I did love it. There was always just that challenge of getting better, and every year having a new goal and getting a step closer to the ultimate dream. I really didn’t have the dream of the Olympics until I was maybe in middle school. And, at that point, it started to get a little harder. My life centered around skating—training before and after school. It was a huge time commitment for me and my family.

I bet it was.

At one point, I was competing in both singles and pair skating with Rudy Galindo and our partnership was coming to an end. It was a tough transition. I started just focusing on singles and there was this mounting pressure—and in some ways the sport had kind of been taken away from me. I wasn’t really enjoying it. One day, a training mate of mine pulled me aside and said, “Why are you so miserable? You’re so talented and you know you are going to be world champion one day.” And I was like, “No, I don’t know that. I’ve been second at the U.S. Championship for four years.” And he said, “Just know you’re going to be world champion someday. Enjoy yourself when you train. Smile once in a while. Think about why you’re doing all this.” At that point I tried to imagine my life without skating and I couldn’t. That’s when I said, “I’m taking the sport back and I’m going to do it my way.” I really started to enjoy myself and a few weeks later we were at the World Championships and it was the best time I ever had skating. That’s when I won my first world title.

What was it like when you, Tonya and Nancy swept those World Championships in 1991?

It had been over 30 years since a U.S. sweep of the World Championships. We were all really proud of representing our country the way we did—and obviously excited, because we were going into an Olympic year. We were the team to beat. All three of us were such different skaters. We had strength in different areas and we pushed each other to be better, to get better.

After the ’92 Olympics, many people were surprised you didn’t defend your title in the ’94 Games. Why did you decide to go pro instead?

It was a unique situation because that’s when they began staggering the winter and summer games. I skated professionally a year before the Olympics and I was like, “OK, am I going to buckle down and train or am I going to stay professional?” And at that point, with one year of being a pro and skating with Stars on Ice under my belt, I was like, “I’m living my dream and if I go back to the Olympics it would just be to defend my title and I’ve never competed just to win.”

So, I have to ask you: What’s more difficult, being a professional athlete or dancing in Dancing with the Stars?

Both were a challenge! I mean Dancing with the Stars was obviously an intense 10 weeks. The Olympics—a lifelong pursuit. With Dancing with the Stars I was like, “OK, this is a reality TV program. Let’s just go for it and have fun.” My goal was to make it to the finals because I wanted to do the freestyle dance. It looked like so much fun. But once I made it to the finals, those competitive juices started flowing.

You and pro dancer Mark Ballas ended up winning the coveted Mirrorball Trophy…

I had a great partner.

Tell me a little bit about your charity, the Always Dream Foundation, which you started more than 20 years ago. What was your inspiration?

When I skated with Stars on Ice, the beneficiary was Make-A-Wish Foundation. As you can imagine, meeting the families and meeting the children with life-threatening illnesses made an impression on me. It was just so rewarding to know you have the power to make a positive difference in the life of a child. That inspired me to start the Always Dream Foundation. In 1996, Dean [Osaki] and I established the foundation, focusing on disadvantaged children and organizations. About nine or 10 years ago, we decided to narrow our focus to early literacy because reading is that fundamental building block—learning to read and then reading to learn. That’s where our passion has been. I feel like we’re really doing something worthwhile.

So, what’s next for Kristi Yamaguchi?

Who knows? I always just seem to take on challenges as they come. The constant is the foundation and knowing that we want to continue to grow and continue to reach more kids and improve what we’re doing. And, of course, I’ll continue to be an ambassador to figure skating.

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